JUNE 29, 2017 – NEW YORK – Chaja Rubinstein and Florence Nightingale Graham never actually met or spoke, but the cosmetic pioneers known as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden had a lot in common as businesswomen.
Both Rubinstein, born to Jewish parents in Poland, and Arden, who began life as part of an Episcopalian farming family in Canada, revolutionized the world of beauty in distinctive ways. Each used original branding and packaging to market cosmetics to everyday women.
The flamboyant Rubenstein and the more reserved Arden defied the obstacles of the so-called man’s world of the first half of the 1900s to create business empires. Their differences and similarities take to the stage in the musically dynamic Broadway musical “War Paint” at the Nederlander Theatre in New York.
Inspired by the biography of the same name by British historian Lindy Woodhead and the 2007 documentary “The Powder and the Glory,” the musical examines the celebrated rivalry between Rubinstein and Arden from the 1930s to the 1960s. Playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) has the two Manhattan-based entrepreneurs overhear each other in corresponding scenes and eventually come together in the late going for an anthem-like number called ‘’Beauty in the World.”
Two Broadway legends with their own signature vocal styles – Patti Lupone as Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Arden – deliver all of the songs written by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) with a blend of authority and fire. The book and score effectively detail the strengths of each pioneer and her house of beauty. Catherine Zuber’s brilliant costume design not only captures the exotic attire of Rubinstein and the more classic garb of Arden, but also includes white lab coats for Rubenstein’s scientific approach and smart but uniform-like pink outfits for the Arden’s salon technicians.
If Wright’s busy book does well with Rubinstein and Arden’s respective approaches to beauty, it ought to be less symmetrical in its treatment of their professional successes and personal vulnerabilities. While Lupone and Ebersole are dazzling throughout, repeated scene alternation between Rubinstein and Arden – for example, conflicts between Rubinstein and her ambitious business manager, Harry Fleming, on the one hand and Arden and her professionally dissatisfied husband on the other – cumulatively ends up blunting some of the force of the musical’s messages about individuality and women’s empowerment.
At the same time, Wright’s book does deal with Rubinstein’s ongoing struggle with anti-Semitism – most notably her purchase of the Park Avenue building restricted against Jews – but could say more about her philanthropy and support for Israel.
Still, Lupone’s tenacious Rubinstein and Ebersole’s reflective Arden – under Michael Greif’s strong direction – make a uniquely compelling contrast of two true artists of the facial palette. Lupone has the right combination of imperiousness and insecurity as Rubinstein. Her solo “Forever Beautiful” is a true showstopper as she delivers a rich belt surrounded by Rubinstein portraits by the likes of Picasso and Dali.
Ebersole’s lush coloring will call to mind her unforgettable work in Frankel and Korie’s earlier “Grey Gardens” (which clearly influenced the tone of this score). She builds the Arden solo “Pink” artfully to a cleverly ironic finish in which she reveals her true feeling about the title color.
John Dossett has the right anxiety and frustration as “Mr. Arden,” and Douglas Sills finds all the insight and impulsiveness of Fleming, Rubinstein’s business manager.
Lupone and Ebersole paint a master tableau about women and beauty even when “War Paint” needs surer brush strokes.